SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The first greenhouse gas-fighting mandates to pinch Californians won't be the state's trend-setting new laws requiring low-carbon fuels and more fuel efficiency.
State Attorney General Jerry Brown is the first to crack down, using a California law enacted long before stranded polar bears became symbols of global warming.
Squeezing the trigger on the 37-year-old California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, Brown is pressuring high-growth cities and counties such as Sacramento and Yuba to immediately include climate change — alongside traffic congestion, sewage treatment capacity and water supplies — in assessing environmental impacts of major proposed projects.
Brown's action comes as leading climate scientists warn that the world is closer to the brink of a climate crisis than previously realized.
"California can't wait," said Brown, who was the state's Democratic governor from 1974 to 1982 and more recently Oakland's mayor. "If we do nothing for the next several years, then the buildup of these gases will require even more drastic reductions."
Despite the urgency, Brown has run into resistance from some counties and legislators.
"Anti-growth Governor Brown is back, now as attorney general," wrote Republican state Sen. Bob Dutton in a column in the San Bernardino Sun newspaper. "California's population continues to grow, and he's turning his back on our transportation needs."
California is the first state to regulate one of the largest single sources of climate-altering exhausts: automobiles. But the start of that law, Assembly Bill 1493, is two years away.
And the ambitious Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, mandating a 25 percent reduction of total greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, is at least six years away.
Given the delays, and the absence of federal mandates, Brown is wasting no time firing CEQA warnings at local agencies now launching long-term development and transportation plans without considering how they might affect climate change.
The attorney general's office has written 14 letters in the past 16 months admonishing counties and cities to calculate and curb a region's projected emissions of heat-trapping, or greenhouse, gases.
Among the targets: the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, a group of elected officials who divvy up federal highway and transit construction dollars. They took Brown's warning to heart in drafting the council's 30-year Metropolitan Transportation Plan.
"Our board had already committed to measuring and minimizing climate change impacts. The attorney general's letter takes the seriousness of our commitment to a new level," said Mike McKeever, SACOG executive director.
Word of Brown's letters — precursors to lawsuits — has traveled fast among developers and land-use planners, prompting some to take pre-emptive action.
Developers of the recently approved 14,132-home Placer Vineyards community scrambled to add a global warming chapter to their environmental review.
"The letters from the attorney general and environmental groups brought the issue to the fore," said James Moose, a Sacramento lawyer and CEQA expert who represents the Vineyards.
"It was clear that there would be a lot of lawsuits in the state," Moose said. "If we didn't put (the global warming chapter) in, then we could be drawn into one of those lawsuits."
Still, some local governments are balking.
Earlier this month, Yuba County supervisors ignored Brown's warning and approved a 5,100-house tract in the foothills north of Beale Air Force Base.
The project's environmental impact report "completely ignores impacts from greenhouse gas emissions in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act," Brown wrote in a May 11 letter.
Brown noted the project will add 25,000 automobile trips a day in the county.
"Many of these trips will be lengthy commute trips," Brown wrote, "yet the (environmental impact report) fails to quantify the impacts of or propose any significant mitigation for the resulting greenhouse gas emissions."
Supervisor Don Schrader, who voted for the project, said the alternative would have been to build the homes in a floodplain, replacing productive farms.
In an interview, Brown said he's not out to kill big projects, even sprawling ones.
"We are looking for cooperative agreements with local government to get moving now on reducing greenhouse gas emissions where practical," Brown said.
Moose sees it more bluntly.
"Environmental groups and Jerry Brown are looking for situations where large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions are involved, to create the test court case that says you need to analyze these emissions," Moose said.
San Bernardino County could be that test.
In its first global warming-related lawsuit brought against a local agency, the attorney general's office sued San Bernardino county in April for allegedly failing to "fully evaluate and disclose the reasonably foreseeable effects of (its) general plan update on global warming" and failing to "consider and adopt appropriate mitigation."
The 30-year plan projects San Bernardino's population will more than double, to 4.3 million.
Brown has held settlement talks with San Bernardino supervisors.
The lawsuit angered Senate Republicans who have made it a weapon in the ongoing state budget fight.
Earlier this month, the Senate Republican caucus proposed budget language that would prohibit CEQA lawsuits over greenhouse gas emissions. The moratorium would stretch to 2012, when California begins enforcing its Global Warming Solutions Act, known as Assembly Bill 32.
Karen Douglas, legislative director for Environmental Defense, said the global warming law does not pre-empt CEQA.
"Project applicants (must) do what CEQA has required them to do for almost 30 years, which is to disclose, analyze and mitigate environmental impacts where feasible," she said.
The law gives planning authorities considerable discretion in determining what is "feasible." And, in any event, planners can approve developments they know will significantly affect the environment — at the risk of a court challenge.
Officials also have wiggle room in determining which environmental impacts rise to the level of "significant," the trigger word for countermeasures.
Ken Alex, a supervising deputy attorney general who heads the anti-global warming effort, said climate-altering effects of some proposed developments are significant beyond a doubt.
He points to ConocoPhillips' proposed refinery expansion in the Contra Costa County town of Rodeo. The project is in Brown's cross hairs. By the company's own estimates, the project is expected to emit 1.4 million tons of greenhouse gases a year. According to numbers compiled by the California Energy Commission, the expanded plant would represent about 0.25 percent of California's entire contribution to global climate change — from every car, power plant and factory.
"Don't tell me that's not significant," Alex said.
(c) 2007, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).
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